The president's fight against "fake news" has South Korea alarmed

The president’s fight against “fake news” has South Korea alarmed

President Yoon Suk Yeol’s allies are not holding back when they criticize what they see to be an existential danger to South Korea. Mr. Yoon’s party chief has demanded the death penalty in a “high treason” case. The nation’s cultural ministry has pledged to expose what it described as a “organized and dirty” plot to subvert democracy in the nation.

In this instance, the accused is a Korean news organization that has written pieces disparaging Mr. Yoon and his administration, not a foreign spy.

The president, a career prosecutor, is trying to stifle speech that he labels misleading by using lawsuits, state regulators, and criminal investigations. These actions have mostly been directed at journalistic organizations. The police and prosecutors have conducted many raids on the residences and newsrooms of journalists whom Mr. Yoon’s administration has accused of disseminating “fake news” since he was elected last year.

Mr. Yoon is accused by some South Koreans of using the statement as cover for defamation lawsuits and of inciting regulators and prosecutors to issue threats of fines and criminal probes. Many are irritated that their leader has started using the term, which is a catchphrase for strongmen worldwide and is further alienating an already divided electorate at home.

After years of military dictatorship, South Koreans are proud of their dynamic democracy, free press, and, more recently, their nation’s increasing soft-power impact.

Perhaps Mr. Yoon’s most well-known foreign accomplishments are his closer ties to the United States and his performance of “American Pie” at the White House. Although he advocates for “freedom” in his speeches, his almost continual conflict with the opposition and worries about censorship and democratic regression have marked his 18-month rule.

All democratic leaders have struggled with how to fend against the damaging consequences of misinformation on the internet. However, Mr. Yoon’s detractors charge him of stifling expression in the name of combating misinformation, a charge that is echoed by the liberal opposition and journalistic groups. Most local journalists who responded to this year’s study expressed the opinion that Mr. Yoon was weakening press freedom.

When Mr. Yoon’s administration singled out an independent news group for a piece it had published the previous year, the crackdown became more intense in September.

The offices and residences of the two Newstapa reporters who covered the story were pillaged by prosecutors. Other media outlets’ journalists were also singled out, and their files and telephones were taken in order to gather criminal proof of defamation. Since South Korea became democratic in the 1990s, the government has not often used such harsh measures, but Mr. Yoon has brought about a shift in this regard. Three cable and TV networks that carried the Newstapa story were penalized by government officials, who also charged them with disseminating “fake news.”

Three days before to Mr. Yoon’s election in March 2022, Newstapa published the piece that infuriated him. It included a claim that Mr. Yoon, while he was a prosecutor in 2011, chose not to file a criminal charge against Cho Woo-hyung, a defendant in a real estate and banking scandal, due to pressure from a prosecutor who later became a lawyer. In the presidential debates, Mr. Yoon refuted the notion, and he continues to do so.

The topic has been covered by other news outlets in the past. However, Newstapa obtained an audio recording of a discussion between one of its independent investigators and Kim Man-bae, a former journalist and pivotal player in the controversy, who asserted that he had referred Mr. Cho to the attorney, who subsequently utilized his connections with Mr. Yoon to have the case against Mr. Cho withdrawn. According to Newstapa, the freelancer supplied the recording only a few days before to the vote in 2021 and was not on work at the time of the talk.

The Newstapa report was almost forgotten after Mr. Yoon was elected until September, when authorities searched the freelancer’s house on charges that he had accepted $122,000 in bribes from Mr. Kim. Both Mr. Kim and the freelancer denied bribery, and Newstapa said that it was unaware of any cash exchanges between the two at the time the story was published. However, it maintained its position to publish the audio file’s contents and charged the president with attempting to stifle a media source that didn’t follow his lead.

The justice minister for Mr. Yoon demanded responsibility and a comprehensive inquiry. Once its new chairman, an appointment of Yoon, referred to “fake news” as “a clear and present danger,” the Korea Communications Standards Commission, which normally censors websites with gambling, pornography, or North Korean propaganda, said that it wanted to check all online media to eradicate it.

Journalists fed up with what they saw as corporate, political, and news media cooperation founded Newstapa in 2012. Although South Korea’s democracy seems to be thriving, the public has long had little faith in the country’s news companies because they were seen as supporting political prejudice and caving in to corporate interests. With a staff of fifty, Newstapa is entirely dependent on contributions to fund its work. It has released investigative reports that are critical of South Korea’s elites, including large corporations and prosecutors.

Analysts said that by publishing an unsupported accusation so close to a fiercely fought election, the media had opened itself up to criticism. (Mr. Yoon prevailed in the closest of all free presidential contests in South Korea.) However, they also referred to the government’s reaction as excessive.

President Yoon was initially well-liked by the media. When he came for work in the morning, he was the first South Korean leader to let media ask questions. However, such transparency was short-lived.

The president took a more antagonistic tone last year when the South Korean broadcaster MBC released what it referred to be a hot-mic recording in which he used an obscenity to disparage American politicians. The following time Mr. Yoon visited abroad, two months later, he forbade MBC reporters from boarding his official aircraft. He said that the group’s “fake news” article was a “malicious” effort to sever ties with Washington.

In the morning, he also stopped answering inquiries.

Both conservatives and their opponents in South Korea have been charged for suppressing critical news stories while in power. Additionally, the liberal opposition labeled false news as “a public enemy” and attempted to pass laws that would have allowed for severe financial penalties when in power. Conservative pushback, characterizing the plan as a “dictatorial” attempt to stifle unfavorable news sites, caused the campaign to collapse.

The positions of the two sides changed under Mr. Yoon. The difference is that the conservative administration is using an outdated tool instead of attempting to pass new legislation.

In South Korea, a conviction for defamation is punishable by fines or up to seven years in jail. The prosecution bases its case on whether the speech was “in the public interest,” not on the truth of the statement.

According to Mr. Yoon’s office, legal action was necessary to stop false information from proliferating and coming to be believed as reality. However, the way the government defines false news has sparked debate about where the boundaries are between free expression and misinformation.

MBC was sued by the Foreign Ministry for refusing to take down the hot-mic story. Reporters and producers at The Tamsa, a YouTube channel that covered claims of corruption involving Mr. Yoon, his wife, his mother-in-law (who is incarcerated for forgery), and his justice minister, have had many raids by the police since he assumed office. Additionally, in September, JTBC, a cable station that carried the identical accusation against Mr. Yoon as Newstapa, had its offices searched by authorities. Four other journalists who covered similar allegations before to the election had their homes or workplaces investigated by the police.

South Koreans have been turning more and more to YouTube and other internet news sources as a result of their mistrust of conventional media. During the most recent presidential election, these platforms were very influential and disseminated blatantly political viewpoints.

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